March 20
Charles Koch, left (Associated Press) and David Koch (Bloomberg)
Charles Koch, left (Associated Press) and David Koch (Bloomberg)

Democrats have been talking a lot about the Koch brothers lately, and not just because you can wittily accuse a Republican of being “Addicted to Koch!” (the name is pronounced like coke). Two weeks ago, Greg explained what he saw behind the strategy: “The Koch brothers are a proxy for special interests in general, an easy-to-understand concept designed to create a narrative framework within which voters might reach the general conclusion that GOP candidates’ priorities aren’t in their states’ interests; they are serving something — or someone — else. This is similar to the Dems’ Bain strategy of 2012.”

But the effort to get Americans familiar with the Kochs is also about playing defense, since the brothers are going to drop tens of millions of dollars in races all over the country; one way to counter them is to inoculate against their ads by trying to get voters to say, “Is that one of those Koch brothers ads? Those guys are evil” every time they see one. It’s a big job, because the Kochs — who control the second-largest privately held company in America, with 60,000 employees and more than $100 billion in annual revenue — have pretty much unlimited resources. And we’ll probably never know how much they spend; they’ve unleashed an army of tax lawyers to set up a byzantine network of organizations that makes following all their money almost impossible. To see how it works on the ground and in the air, the Fix’s Jaime Fuller has a report on what the Kochs are doing in Arkansas through Americans for Prosperity, their primary vehicle for electoral spending:

Last week, AFP spent over $700,000 on an ad buy in Arkansas. In the ad, a woman who received a cancellation letter from her insurance company spoke while text reminded viewers that Pryor voted for Obamacare. Once again, the ad ended with the senator’s phone number. Last weekend, 43 AFP volunteers knocked on about 4,000 doors in Northwest Arkansas. On March 20, they have a phone bank scheduled in Benton County, and a canvass planned two days later. In the next few weeks they’ll have booths set up at the Hog Festival Cook-off, the German Heritage Festival, the Arkansas Festival and the Annual England Festival. After five years in the state, Americans for Prosperity nearly has omnipresence down to a science.

The more than $1.4 million Americans for Prosperity has already spent on ad buys in Arkansas — almost eight months before Election Day — is what gets the group notice nationally. Since last fall, the group has spent around $30 million on ad buys in states with close Senate races this midterm season, making it the biggest spender of the 2014 election thus far. It’s gotten even harder to notice their grassroots presence, since they’ve mostly given up on rallies and bus tours in favor of canvassing and phone banks. But without their “grassroots army,” they say all that spending would be for nothing. “Without the strength of our on-the-ground activists, we wouldn’t have achieved what we have achieved,” says Cline.

On the strength of their “grassroots army,” I’ll believe it when I see it — 43 volunteers isn’t going to win you a Senate election — but they’re smart to realize that individual voter contact is much more effective than TV ads, on a per-person basis anyway. But can Democrats actually use the Kochs to their advantage? Brian Beutler says they may be able to, because the brothers’ interests are so vast that it’s hard to find a Republican anywhere who hasn’t benefited from them or done them a favor — a tax break here, a gutted environmental regulation there — and that means you can tie them to the Kochs honestly and simply. “They have increased their fortunes, and advanced their ideological beliefs, with remarkable efficacy, but precisely because their reach is so great they have littered the political terrain in state after state with live ammunition, which will now be aimed at their political beneficiaries.”

One problem, as I’ve noted before, is that at this point most Americans probably have no idea who these guys are. But, in addition to Brian’s excellent point, I’d add a few other that could make turning them into villains possible. First, their primary business — oil — is something Americans often associate with greedy billionaires. Second, unlike some billionaires (such as, say, conservative bete noir George Soros), their political activism is geared in large part to making their own lives easier, with lower taxes for the wealthy and less regulation of their industries high on their priority list (not that I doubt they sincerely believe those policies would turn the United States into a paradise for all; I’m sure they do). Third, they come as a pair, meaning you might be able to get people to remember them even if they can’t recall their names: “Those billionaire brothers? Yeah, I heard of them.” And, fourth, you don’t have to work too hard to convince voters that a couple of mean old billionaires are gaming the system to favor Republicans. It’s a familiar story, reminding people of every attack on the GOP that Democrats have made for decades. There’s a reason Mr. Burns is not a Democrat.

So Democrats might be able to neutralize the help the Kochs are giving to the GOP. Just maybe.